I’m honored to present my review for another amazing book release from this week, We Are Not Free, as a part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages. I’ve been a huge fan of Traci Chee’s work since her debut with The Reader, which I reviewed back in 2016, so I was excited to see what she would do with this new genre.
Title: We Are Not Free
Author: Traci Chee
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: September 1, 2020
Genres: Historical YA Fiction
All around me, my friends are talking, joking, laughing. Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us.
We are not free.
But we are not alone.”
From New York Times best-selling and acclaimed author Traci Chee comes We Are Not Free, the collective account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II.
Fourteen teens who have grown up together in Japantown, San Francisco.
Fourteen teens who form a community and a family, as interconnected as they are conflicted.
Fourteen teens whose lives are turned upside down when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry are removed from their homes and forced into desolate incarceration camps.
In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together as racism and injustice threaten to pull them apart.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I went into this book since this is Traci Chee’s first work of historical fiction and her previous work was epic fantasy. Mostly I was just expecting it to be stellar, and indeed it was.
One of the things I praised The Reader for was innovative storytelling techniques, and that strength of Chee’s carries over into We Are Not Free. Juggling fourteen different points of view is no small task, and Chee executes this with grace and creativity. The story spans about three years total and chronologically follows a different character for each chapter/section of the book as various events and developments occur, from the initial order to leave San Francisco to the homecoming. While most chapters utilize first person narration, there is one chapter that deviates and uses second person, as well as another chapter that is not from one perspective but rather the combined perspectives of all of the characters.
Although all but one of the points of view are written in first person, they don’t blend together or get repetitive. Each viewpoint is constructed in a way that highlights the distinctive qualities of every character. Each chapter builds on the previous ones and adds a layer to the painting, deepening the portrayals of all of the characters, not just the one who’s speaking. Every character has a different reaction to the experience of incarceration and their thoughts and feelings and the personalities that inform them are built into the narration. Some are written like journal entries, others styled as letters to another character, and one even takes the form of poetry/verse. These stylistic shifts serve to disorient and reorient the readers like a turning kaleidoscope.
What makes this story so great is the expansive and diverse emotional landscapes painted in these fourteen points of view, individually and taken together. They are complex and dynamic, ranging from optimism, to resolve, to resentment, to fury, to numbness, and beyond. The writing deftly conveys the rawness of the injustice and trauma these young people are facing.
Dark as the circumstances may be, this story does not succumb to nihilism. The characters work to establish a new normal and support network in the face of immense upheaval. Their deep love for one another and their families comprises the core of this book. As Yum-Yum says, “We are not free. But we are not alone.” Against the odds, they carve out a space for resistance, hope, and even joy–together, as a community.
Interspersed throughout the chapters are photos, illustrations, correspondences, news articles, and so on–some drawing from real archival sources, others fabricated for the purpose of the book–documenting Japanese American incarceration through a visual medium that helps further immerse readers in the time period. I personally love when books are crafted to enrich the reader experience beyond the prose; the added texture brings another dimension to the story.
If I had to pick favorites among the viewpoint characters, it would be Frankie and Minnow. Frankie spends most of his chapter blazing in incandescent rage at his situation, with no outlet for catharsis. This resonated with my memories of my own teen years. Of course, I was not subjected to the violence of incarceration, but I did feel the weight of racism and mistreatment from society, and I definitely lashed out in anger because I didn’t know how to process my emotions constructively. These similarities between us made Frankie’s character all the more real and compelling for me.
Then there’s Minnow, who has the special status of narrating two chapters, the first and the last, whose perspective bookends the story. He is one of the youngest of the group, forced to grow up too much, too soon, and his sensitivity and artist’s eye imbue the story with a delicate, aching sentimentality that lingers even after you’ve turned the last page.
The TL;DR version: We Are Not Free is a gorgeously written masterpiece of fiction that makes a painful but still relevant history accessible to young people.
The end of the book includes some recommendations for further reading, and for the second half of my tour stop, I’d like to add a few books of my own to the list. Check out my post on what to read after We Are Not Free.
Content/trigger warnings: racism (including anti-Japanese slurs), physical assault, torture, war, death, grief
About the Author:
Traci Chee is the New York Times best-selling author of The Reader trilogy. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. She is Japanese American and was inspired to write We Are Not Free by her family’s experience during World War II. Some of the events she includes in the book are loosely inspired by their stories. She loves books, poetry and paper crafts, as well as bonsai gardening and games. She lives in California.
- Website: http://www.tracichee.com/
- Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6567825.Traci_Chee
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tracicheeauthor/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/tracichee
- Tumblr: https://tracichee.tumblr.com/
Check out the other tour stops!
Book Rambler – Welcome post & interview
Mellas Musings – Favorite quotes
Debjani’s Thoughts – Review Only
Sophie Schmidt – Review in Gifts
The Reading Fairy – Review Only
Her Book Thoughts – Favorite Quotes
What Irin Reads – Review Only
Sometimes Leelynn Reads – Author Interview
The Confessions Of A Music And Book Addict – Review Only
Emelie’s Books – Mood Board
Too Much Miya – Fanart /Art related to the story
Yna the Mood Reader – Favorite Quotes
The Writer’s Alley – Review Only
Marshmallow Pudding – Favorite Quotes
Div Reads – Reading vlog
Clairefy – Review Only
Know Your Books – Favorite Quotes
READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA – Book Recommendations Based on Book
Per_fictionist – Favorite Quotes
Mamata – Review Only
Wilder Girl Reads – Review Only
Lives In Books – Book Recommendations Based on Books
A Fangirl’s Haven – Review Only